Day 10: Lights, Camera, History

At first glance, Taigu might seem like an unlikely place to shoot a movie. As a township, it could be any number of small, obsolete, coal towns that litter most of northern China. The landscape, though theoretically quite majestic, is perpetually blanketed under a thick layer of dust and smog. And even as pure countryside, there is too much construction and renovation going on in the city center to make it truly convincing. The hidden gem comes, ironically, in the very campus where we live and work. SAU is among some of the only institutions in China left unaffected by the blind wrath of the Cultural Revolution, so much of its ancient architecture is still intact. It's an incredibly remarkable feat that the buildings here—some dating back to the late 1800s—have stood the test of time.

This fact, coupled with Taigu's general obscurity, have made SAU a compelling spot for film directors scouting for locations to shoot period-piece films on pre-Communist China. On the weekends, it's not all that surprising to find a gigantic film trailer stuffed full of gear and equipment sitting near the entrance to North Yard. I've seen about a half-dozen film crews in the time that I've been in Taigu alone—replete with dapper suited actors and resplendent actresses dressed in qipao—but none more alarming than the seemingly paranormal appearance of three 1950s-era Oldsmobiles at the front of the old library a couple of weeks ago. But well-known movie production houses aren't the only ones getting their directing chops in Taigu. In fact, the student film club at SAU writes, acts in, and directs one movie every year, often utilizing points of interest on campus. Last year's effort was called Campus Agents.

A promotional poster for Campus Agents.  It's too bad the movie was nowhere near as cool as what it was made out to be.

The club had the trailer blasting on-loop for two weeks by the cafeteria before we eventually inquired about the movie and left holding six tickets to see it the following weekend for the campus premier. Though it was entirely in Chinese without subtitles, the plot of the movie was easy enough to navigate. The first five minutes, like the trailer, showed a great deal of promise—students clad in militia gear wielding firearms and staking out positions around a large factory before delving into a full-scale dogfight. But unfortunately for the largely student audience, the rest of the inaptly-titled film quickly devolved into a campy, pseudo-romantic comedy. As foreigners, we thought we'd incorporate a bit of American culture into the movie-watching process by bringing the Chinese equivalent of 40s into the lecture hall where the film was being screened. Gerald, as the snarky film snob that he is, led us all in a drinking game where we'd take a shot every time something was shot badly—from forgetting to use a noise-canceling mic to the lack of muzzle flares on the guns. Needless to say, Dave had to leave halfway through the movie to buy another round.

One of the ancient buildings in SAU's “old campus,” formerly commissioned by H. H. Kung.

But of all the great shooting locations at SAU, the most significant architectural feat is undoubtedly the “old campus” located in the far north. It was built by H. H. Kung who founded the school with a group of Oberlin missionaries in 1907 and is credited with fostering the relationship between the two universities. At the time, he was the richest man in China and dedicated many of the structures on campus to his family. Many of the old buildings have since been converted into administrative offices, but the courtyards are still quite beautiful to walk through. Kung's legacy is steeped in institutional memory—so perhaps one day someone will finally return to make a movie about him.